“The Great Armada” by Brian Stableford
“The Spires of Denon” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“The Armies of Elfland” by Eileen Gunn & Michael Swanwick
“This Wind Blowing, and This Tide” by Damien Broderick
“True Fame” by Robert Reed
“An Ordinary Day with Jason” by Kate Wilhelm
“Atomic Truth” by Chris Beckett
“Human Day” by Jack Skillingstead
“Cowgirls in Space” by Deborah Coates
“Exegesis” by Nancy Kress
Reviewed by Todd Ruthman
The April/May issue opens with Brian Stableford’s “The Great Armada”, the final of four installments of his first contact series set in the sixteenth century. I had not read the earlier pieces so, even though they do provide a quick synopsis, it took a while for me to find the story’s rhythm. Once I did, though, it drew me right in. If you dream of owning any of the ray guns of Dr. Grordbort offered by the Weta Workshop and enjoy parsing phrases like “The conflict within the True Civilization, catalyzed by the quarrels instituted by its first confrontation with natural endoskeletal intelligence…”, then this series is for you. It has it all: weird and wonderful alien races, space armadas flying through the ether, and a battle for the future of humankind. It would help if I had a better grasp of the historical figures involved such as the protagonist, Francis Bacon, and his contemporaries, but even lacking that it is still a good read.
It is perhaps unfortunate for Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “The Spires of Denon” that it came next, as it was much weaker in comparison. The titular Spires of Denon, ancient and mysterious artifacts towering over a lost city of a once powerful civilization, form the centerpiece of this far future novella. The lead archeologist Gabrielle Reese hires a security team to protect the site while she excavates hidden caverns below the city and the mystery of the spires unfolds from there. I have not read any of Rusch’s other work, so I cannot make any comparison there, but I found the characters unimaginative and the dialogue and narration stilted and unconvincing and found myself finishing it only for the sake of this review.
Moving on to the novelettes, “The Armies of Elfland” by Eileen Gunn & Michael Swanwick is set in modern day earth where an elven army from elsewhere has hunted humans to near extinction. The elves capture a few surviving children and the story centers around their experiences as slaves in a nentirely alien society. The storytelling is tight, evokes a hypnotic sense of oddness, and goes in some surprising directions.
“This Wind Blowing, and This Tide” by Damien Broderick has a poetic pace as it works through conflict between traditional scientists and those of a more mystical nature as they investigate an ancient starship found on Saturn’s Titan. This is not a story with an ending per se as the conclusion resolves little. It is more a study of characters with some mystical abilities and their slow integration with science. I liked the way it flowed around the ideas presented.
The remaining offerings are all short stories. The first, “True Fame” by Robert Reed, takes a look at a near future where there is little privacy and people spend a great deal of time watching each other through portal-glasses backed by AI software and an army of available researchers. The game is to find out as much as possible about those around you with particular emphasis on finding the rich and famous. The players this time out are a young couple drawn into a mystery while on holiday in cottage country. I am still trying to figure out exactly what happened at the end.
You could as easily call “An Ordinary Day with Jason” by Kate Wilhelm contemporary fantasy as science fiction, but either way it is an entertaining story about a family with an odd inherited trait.
“Atomic Truth” by Chris Beckett also looks at a future where everyone wears goggles (called bugs) but these are much more immersive than the portal-glasses in “True Fame.” It imagines a couple of hours in a world where we disconnect from our immediate surroundings but still connect with each other and lets us see that world from the perspective of Jenny, who embraces that world, and Richard, who does not and who may or may not be crazy. It has a nice tempo, good characters, and a little bit of weirdness to keep it interesting.
Jack Skillingstead’s “Human Day” is a fairly straightforward post-apocalyptic/post-invasion from another dimension story about the last surviving “human.” Or is Raymond just a paranoid delusional? You decide.
I confess I did not really get “Cowgirls in Space” by Deborah Coates. It is reasonably well written but I found the dialogue a little confusing and am not entirely sure what happened in the end. I think it will take a couple of more read-throughs at least.
“Exegesis” by Nancy Kress is a short, fun piece on the evolution of language and definitions. It is written as a series of recorded interpretations of “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” as it changes over several centuries into the future. Pod mate, indeed.